What are transcendental films?

December 30, 2021

I think it’s a thing that we all have in common here, this insisten urge to plant yourself in the film theatre, get engulfed by a tremendous film and seemingly levitate out of your seat, into this sublime world of beauty and pathos.

It’s one of those inherent contradictions of cinema: how it forces you to be stil, rendered immobile in your seat, and how it can still move you, push you, pull you, letting you transcend this mortal plane into an ever-existing world of shadow and light…

Transcendence. Isn’t it the highest goal of cinema? To transcend the tight borders of the film frame and to open you up to a world you couldn’t imagine, envision or experience yourself?

If we consider the historical implications of the term Transcendence — of a nature or a power which is wholly independent of our material universe — the effect of it in cinema is nothing short of metaphysical, spiritual even. Meaning it’s a quality to a film that’s near unobtainable. I’d go even further and say that filmmakers that set out to reach a transcendental experience with their films will more often fail than succeed, as the path to obtaining this goal is something akin to reaching Nirvana in buddhism. There’s no formula for transcendence, no secret recipe that gives you the sublime.

And yet, there’s Paul Schrader…

Before the beloved screenwriter of undeniable classics like Taxi Driver and the prolific director of some of America’s finest films like American Gigolo, Hardcore, The Comfort of Strangers and more recently First Reformed wrote and directed films, he himself was working as a film critic under the auspices of the ever-influential Susan Sontag. Totally immersed in an artform that he wasn’t allowed to consume when he was a youngster with a strict orthodox Christian background, he attributed a spiritual quality to world cinema that many of his peers had missed.

Bringing together the films of Carl Theodor Dryer, Yasujirō Ozu and Robert Bresson he described in a book what he called transcendental style in film: a form of cinema that managed to reach a more spiritual plane by employing austere camerawork. acting devoid of self-consciousness and editing that editorial commentary. In short, these are directors who make films within a near-dogmatic frame and find within it the means to transcend their own limitations. Films that use the narrowing lense of the camera to look deeper inside and open up the medium.

The book managed to capture a quality to cinema that’s seemingly ungraspable. Instead of taking notes and reverse-engineering a recipe for a form of transcendental film, he managed to describe what inherent qualities these seemingly disparate filmmakers actually shared with each other. Something ephemeral, yet tangible, a reason to fall in love with the movies all over again, but each time maybe with a higher intensity.

The irony of the films of Paul Schrader is that he only emulates, or equals these qualities in his own films at very specific moments. To paraphrase one of the best jokes in The Sopranos; the cinema of Paul Schrader is spiritual only in the way he combines the profound and the propane.

And yet, you can always feel this baggage, this awareness of the great classics of Dreyer, Ozu and Bresson that influences Schrader’s work, who’s maybe one of the most astute America directors being able to address our doom-pilled global consciousness with a form of high modernist art that many directors have lost base with.

Think about it. What films are still able to transcend the limitations of their own medium and open up dimensions that go way beyond? In a time where we’re thinking of immersion in a purely technological sense, with IMAX cinematography, VR goggles and app-based user interfaces, we’re seemingly straying further away from the concept of film as art, as an object that opens new avenues beyond our current faculty of knowledge.

Luckily, Schrader comes to the rescue again because in the latest edition of his book Transcendental Style in Film, he prefaces his original text with a new essay called Rethinking Transcendental Style, in which he argues that it’s in fact the slow cinema movement, aligned with the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr that have taken over some of the inherent qualities of Transcendental style in the way the slowing of time, movement and the film image itself have opened up these otherwise closed of avenues.

Charting three paths for the artistic conception of cinema, Schrader composed a hilarious diagram in which he explores how film can set out from what he calls the narrative nucleus into a new artistic territory: there’s the ever observing type of film from the Surveillance Cam, the highly experimental territory of the Art Gallery and the seemingly kaleidoscopic area of The Mandala.

Somewhere between the Narrative Nucleus and the outer territories of the surveillance cam, the art gallery and the Mandala is the Tarkovsky Ring — truly one of the best critical inventions of the last years. It’s the demarcation line for where film’s are still consumed in a theatrical context, as opposed to a gallery, a niche film festival or a dedicated online streaming space.

Seriously google Schrader and The Tarkovsky Ring and marvel at what I think is a helpful and highly accurate piece of film criticism that haters could also see as astrology for film buffs.

All of this is a really convoluted way to set up a lovely talk with one of our favorite directors from the Netherlands called Viktor van der Valk. A director that is highly aware of the limitations of the frame and the imperative of the narrative nucleus has found some fascinating ways to try to bypass that in his incredible debut film Nocturne, which could be described as a happy marriage between Jean Luc Godard and Leos Carax.

A true cinephile as well, Viktor suggested that we talk about Transcendental style in film and mainly focus on a film by Bresson called Au Hasard Balthazar, which is a totally radical film in its own right, as it’s a 1966 black-and-white film in which the lead character is a donkey, who gets passed along from owner to owner in a rural village, experiencing the cruelty and sometimes mercy of human nature.

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